A heat wave in California’s San Joaquin Valley stepped up the harvest of raisin grapes, while the industry looked at the prospect of yet another good year for exports because of lower production in Turkey, a competitor for raisins going into Europe.

“Rain in Turkey is expected to reduce the crop there, and it was expected to be 20 percent lighter than last year,” said Kalem Barserian, general manager at Lion Raisins in Selma, a large grower and processor of raisings.

On the other side of the coin, the California raisin crop could also be off by 20 percent. Barserian opened the doors of the processing plant as part of a media tour in which the industry also showcased differences in how raisins are harvested and steps it is taking to market the product domestically and abroad.

In 2007-2008, the California raisin industry had its highest export tally ever. Material distributed by Barserian showed that in that year, the state exported nearly 151,000 tons of Thompson seedless alone. A U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate for this year calls for an export total that could match or exceed that figure.

Although the California crop is considerably lighter this year, it’s considered to be of higher quality than last year’s 364,000-ton crop.

“The vines needed to back up and take a rest,” said Gary Schulz, president and general manager of the Raisin Administrative and California Raisin Marketing Board, both based in Fresno. Most of the nation’s raisin production is within 50 miles of Fresno.

Schulz said that between 300,000 and 320,000 tons of raisins are produced in California on average. The amount actually produced this year will have an effect on how growers are paid because of a sliding scale.

Glen Goto, CEO of the Raisin Bargaining Association in Fresno, said he was not yet prepared to speculate on where that will land. The field price will range between $1,273 and $1,373 per ton depending on a crop ranging from 280,000 to 320,000 tons.

“We’re 20 percent lighter than last year,” Goto said.

Barserian predicted the price per ton will be $1,323.

Schulz said the picture for the California raisin industry has changed greatly from about eight years ago, when it was in crisis largely because of overproduction.

“Back then, there was a lot in the reserve, there were diversion programs, growers were encouraged to take out vineyards and raisins were turned into cattle feed,” he said, adding the industry is now coming off a tight year for inventories.

Barserian pointed out that the state lost 60,000 acres of raisin grapes “and 1,000 growers went out of business” between 2000 and 2008. Almonds and Clementine oranges were among alternatives planted, and some vineyards were simply abandoned.

“We’re in as good a balance on supply and demand as we have been in a long time,” Schulz said.

Trade demand has been set at 235,000 tons this year, but it is not yet known how much tonnage will go into reserves that fund export efforts.

“And we’ve not yet got our arms around how many growers may not make raisins,” Goto said, referring to a lower price being paid for grape concentrate, which can encourage more raisin production.

Barserian explained that if wineries pay a high price, growers may flock to sell their grapes green and “short our raisin supply.” The opposite may be true if the price is low.

“For history, it is mainly Gallo that negotiates that price [for grapes to be sold for concentrate],” he said. This year, the winery price is $165 a ton, down from last year’s $225.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates the raisin variety grapes in California this year will be at 2.1 million tons, down from last year’s 2.5 million tons.

Barserian said competition for exports is tough.

“We’re competing mostly against Third World countries,” he said.

There are some 4,000 growers still farming the Valley’s 220,000-plus acres of raisin grapes. By comparison, he said, Turkey has 65,000 growers, producing on average 5 tons each of sultana raisins, which are dipped into potash and olive oil to speed drying.

The U.S. industry is becoming more mechanized, and Barserian said as much as 40 percent of the crop is now harvested by machines. He said Lion Raisins now has 5,500 acres of grapes on overhead trellises for dried-on-the vine harvesting by machine.

That acreage was planted with a grape called Selma Pete, an alternative to the later-ripening Thompson Seedless, a raisin mainstay. The Selma Pete ripens by Aug. 1 rather than Sept. 1, meaning canes can be cut earlier.

Barserian said only about 10 percent of the raisin grapes in the state are harvested from overhead trellising with the dried-on-the-vine approach.

“Continuous tray still rules the day with about 30 percent,” he said, referring to a machine harvest system in which green grapes are shaken loose and dropped on a paper tray, dried and then scooped up with another machine.

The remaining 60 percent of the state’s grapes are harvested as they have been for decades, using individual paper trays, with workers snipping off the bunches of grapes and laying them on the paper to dry, rolling the papers to protect the raisins and collecting them.

Dennis Wilt, chairman of the California Raisin Marketing Board and grower in the Kerman-Biola area, is using the same labor intensive system on land his grandfather farmed in that area nearly 100 years ago.

Both Wilt and Barserian point to a high cost for establishing the canopy system for dried-on-the vine grapes, about $10,000 an acre, although Barserian said yields can be increased greatly – to as much as 5 tons an acre.

An average conventional vineyard gets about 2 tons per acre, and Wilt said he expects to harvest 3 tons per acre out of his vineyard.

And Wilt said it also requires more year-round labor to care for a DOV system. His labor needs for his conventional system peak during a short period at harvest.

Wilt said this year’s 100-degree days that came late in September have been a challenge for all growers. He said some growers who put grapes down on continuous tray were faced with having to slice the trays into smaller sheets, then roll the trays to protect grapes from the searing sun “that would caramelize them.”

“Also, it’s a problem with work crews that just can’t keep up with the heat,” he said. “And it’s a safety issue, they can’t be out there later in the day.”

As the harvest neared its end – Wilt is predicting it will be 90 percent done by Oct. 1 – the region has been relatively free of the late season rains that can destroy a crop.

A single light, but spotty rain storm hit the Valley Sept. 14, causing little damage, although Wilt said he knew of at least one grower who lost his Rolinda crop to a third to half an inch of rain. Elsewhere, it was mostly traces of rain.

In a meeting at the Fresno offices of the Raisin Administrative Committee, industry leaders talked of where most California raisins go. Two-thirds of the crop – about 200,000 tons – stays in the United States, said Larry Blagg, senior vice president of marketing with the California Raisin Marketing Board.

He said that 46 percent of the domestic sales are for use in grain-based foods — bakery products, energy bars and cereals; 35 percent is sold at retail and 10 percent is sold in confections. The rest goes to food service.

Rick O’Fallon, the board’s director of marketing, was asked if the industry is looking into use of infused flavoring. He replied that it is, indeed, and some of the flavors include cabernet, merlot and wine wines as well as jalapeno chiles and coffee.

“Raisins have a great ability to absorb flavors,” he said, adding that he expects interest in the new products will grow greatly within a year. He said Victor Packing in Madera County has been active in work on infused flavors.